HS2’s chief executive officer, Mark Thurston, is ready to make the case to Boris Johnson’s team

Mark Thurston, CEO of HS2


Mark Thurston is not concerned by the prospect of the HS2 high speed rail link being reviewed by prime minister Boris Johnson’s incoming administration. Since joining HS2 as chief executive officer in March 2017, he has already experienced a number of reviews, and is confident that the case for this enormous infrastructure project still stacks up.

HS2 is already in the process of updating the business case for Phase 1, the line between London and Birmingham, which hasn’t been done since Thurston’s arrival in 2017.

“We know a lot more about HS2 in the last two years,” he told the Midlands Transport Summit in Birmingham earlier this month. “We have done a hell of a lot of design. We’ve done nearly 10,000 ground investigations. So we are much more clear about the scale and scope and complexity of the whole scheme for Phase 1.”

Speaking ahead of Johnson’s victory in the race to become leader of the Conservative Party, and prime minister, Thurston said that he was anticipating some sort of spending review this autumn – including on HS2.

During the leadership contest, Johnson expressed caution about HS2. In the ITV debate on July 9, his opponent, Jeremy Hunt, said “we should be backing it to the hilt”. In contrast, while agreeing that the project should not be scrapped, Johnson said that he would “analyse” the scheme and see instead if the money could be spent elsewhere.

On another occasion, Johnson commented: “What we need to look at is the size of the bill [for HS2], it’s probably north of £100bn by the time it’s done.

“Is there anything we can do with the profiling of that money, is there anything we can do to accelerate the east-west bits in the north while not delaying the spend on the London to Birmingham line?

“That’s the issue. But we will not be holding up the programme. I just want to satisfy myself that it’s really being properly spent.”

People sometimes forget that work is already underway on HS2. Thurston recently attended a Brexit briefing in London where he met the chief executive of BT. When Thurston told him that he headed HS2, his was asked: “When does it get done?”

I said our budget this year is over £3bn, we’ve got 9,000 people around the country,  2,000 businesses working on HS2. And he was sort of blown away.”

“I said our budget this year is over £3bn, we’ve got 9,000 people around the country,  2,000 businesses working on HS2,” Thurston recalled. “And he was sort of blown away.”

He continued: “Notwithstanding some of the media coverage, this thing has got huge momentum, and the result of that momentum is that we’ve got huge support … Actually, despite what you might read in the press yes, there is huge support in Westminster.”

The parliamentary bill for Phase 2a of HS2, which links Birmingham and Crewe, is currently going through the House of Commons and Thurston says that it has received “massive support”. This section of the line is very important because it means that trains can be run off the high speed system and onwards to the West Coast Main Line and into Manchester via Stockport.

“Inevitably there is resistance,” he said. “I have said this before publicly. Big schemes like HS2 do divide opinion, they are disruptive, we have to acquire a lot of land and property, we are very aware of the impact that will have on people’s lives as we continue to acquire lands to allow us to continue and build the scheme … our job is to be sensitive and respectful about that as we go about that.

“I said this to my team and I have said this to all our suppliers, ‘we have got to maintain our mandate to build this railway’ … the minute we lose sight of our responsibility to people who live on or close to to the route then I think we would lose some of that support.”

Thurston appears confident that the new prime minister, a self-proclaimed supporter of great public infrastructure projects, will recognise the merits of the scheme.

“Boris has talked about a review,” he said. “We don’t quite know what that means. We will find out
in due course …  He talks about education, technology and infrastructure being at the heart of his agenda. He had a great track record as mayor of London with all the investment in infrastructure in London.

We have become very professional at being reviewed. We are not fearful of what that entails.

He continued: “We are used to being reviewed at HS2.  We’ve recently come out of the other side of a project assurance review by government. We have not long seen the back of the National Audit Office review of our annual accounts. A new chairman [Allan Cook] has come in and taken stock of what he finds …  So we have become very professional at being reviewed. We are not fearful of what that entails.

“I think it’s only legitimate that a new administration, be it a prime minister, a chancellor or a secretary of state, would want to understand exactly where we are with HS2 and we are working to make sure that we are ready to brief them as they arrive.”

To date, around £7bn has been spent on HS2. A further £3.4bn will be spent this year and annual spending is forecast to peak at around £5-6bn in 2025 and 2026, during the period of maximum construction on Phase 1. At this point, HS2 will employ 30,000 people.

The Department for Transport currently has a budget of around £10bn a year – which is primarily spent on Network Rail, Highways England and HS2. Network Rail’s five-year CP6 (Control Period 6) investment programme for 2019-24 is around £10-12bn, and Thurston said that HS2 would probably cost more than that over the same timeframe. However, he said that it was a misnomer to suggest that HS2 is drawing money away from investment in other schemes. “The data suggests very much otherwise,” he argued.

While the prime minister and others are rightly exercised about HS2’s budget, Thurston urges them not to lose sight of the benefits. The new chairman, Allan Cook, has said that the wider economic benefits of HS2 are not actually quantifiable under the current mechanisms for assessing the value offered by large infrastructure projects. Thurston agrees: “If you think that the Jubilee Line Extension that was geared up to get to Canary Wharf for the millennium, its business case was about 1:1. Our business case overall is over 2:1, about 2.2:1 for the Y-network [from London to Manchester and Leeds], slightly less for just the section to Birmingham.

“Jubilee Line Extension … has transformed that part of London if you are ever to travel out to Canary Wharf, and of course it has more than outperformed the benefits. Crossrail when it opens will be the same.”

Can anyone actually remember what the M25 cost to build, or how long it took? No-one in this room would ever know. But if you ever travelled in or around the South East would you say that that delivers value and benefits to our transport network?

He continued: “Can anyone actually remember what the M25 cost to build, or how long it took? No-one in this room would ever know. But if you ever travelled in or around the South East would you say that that delivers value and benefits to our transport network?

“Channel Tunnel Rail Link is another one. Just about got it opened on time. St Pancras is a fantastic station. If you were to stand at St Pancras this morning asking people if they think the link to France … is good value for money? People will say it’s great, they would rather do that than fly. You ask anyone how long it took and how much it cost and they wouldn’t be able to tell you.

“So we must not lose sight of the wider benefits, and the long term benefits which will last for generations. Unfortunately the analysis we do somewhat caps that because that’s the system. That’s fine, but let’s not lose sight of what it does deliver ultimately.”

There are other benefits which Thurston believes have not been fully considered. Sustainability is one of them. He pointed out that the development of high speed rail in Sweden is driven by a desire for low carbon forms of transport, especially from younger people. An HS2 train journey to Manchester will be seven times greener than travelling by the car and 17 times greener than flying.

Another overlooked benefit is the ability to free up capacity on the West Coast Main Line, enabling new semi-fast services and extra paths for freight trains, taking lorries off the M40 and M1. “We haven’t really told that story,” said Thurston.”

Asked about his thoughts on his own job, Thurston said that the thing he enjoys most is the variety. He deals with a diverse range of suppliers. Earlier in the week, for example, he had been with Crowders Nurseries, a seventh generation, family-owned business in Lincolnshire. They have won the contract to grow the first tranche of up to seven million native trees and shrubs that will be used to create valuable new woodland habitats alongside the HS2 rail link.

He also gets to meet politicians, “which is interesting, I’m not going to say more than that”. This has been the greatest education for him because he hadn’t previously spent any time in his career up close to the civil service and politicians.

Thurston meanwhile relishes the opportunity to help develop the next generation of rail infrastructure talent. As well as heading a major recruiter, he is on the board of the Birmingham-based National College for High Speed Rail.

“I love spending time with our new entrants,  having had the benefit of an apprenticeship at the beginning of my career,” he explained. “I love spending time with them and seeing their energy and enthusiasm …  For the pathway that they may pursue in or beyond HS2.”

He later added: “Personally, we are not attracting other people into our sector generally and I think transport and infrastructure create huge opportunities. If we don’t capture the imagination of young people on a scheme of the scale and ambition of HS2 then frankly we are all somewhat delinquent.”

He also said it was vital that HS2 and the wider industry attracted more more women and people from the BAME community.

Thurston said that his ambition is to remain in the job long enough to be on the first train – and at 52 years of age that is a realistic goal.

He explained: “I started my career as an apprentice on the underground, so railways have been in and out of my career for over 30 years. So the idea that the last really big, meaningful thing I do with my career is to open high speed railway that will change our country for generations, why would I not see that through? The prize is something I never lose sight of, and the responsibility that comes with that prize.”

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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